by Ronald V. May
San Diego History Center 1984 Institute of History
In 1872, the United States Government designed one of the most elaborate military fortifications ever conceived to defend San Diego Bay from foreign invasion. Construction of the fort, which would be capable of repelling a naval armada and a landing force of 200 marines storming the shores of Ballast Point and La Playa, began on June 6, 1873, and was aborted on June 30, 1874, when Congress cut funding for U.S. military spending across the nation. Paralyzed in all its construction projects, the Corps of Engineers recalled its staff, and the exquisite plans for that fabulous fort that never was to be have been all but forgotten.
Coastal defense of America’s civilian and military interests in the continental United States had been delegated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following the War of 1812. Up to that time, the U.S. Navy carried out the “Jeffersonian Gunboat Policy” by organizing a system of armed sailing ships to control trade and discourage privateers from raiding American shipping.1
On November 16, 1816, President James Madison directed Secretary of War George Graham to convene a board of professional engineers to establish a defense policy.2 On that same day, Madison also commissioned the brevet rank of Brigadier General upon Simon Bernard to serve Graham as president of the Board of Engineers. Bernard had been assigned to serve the United States on orders from Napoleon Bonaparte as a diplomatic gesture between the two countries. The “Bernard Board,” as it became called, also included two U.S. Army engineers and one U.S. Navy engineer. Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Joseph G. Totten was among those members on that historic board and later ascended to replace Bernard in 1838.
The Bernard Board shaped American military policy and strategy for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
. . . the responsibility for designating the positions requiring fortification, arranging those in order of relative importance, determining the general design characteristics, reviewing the specific site selections and actual plans of the engineers in charge of the various works. For the first time, a professionally competent authority had been established to direct virtually all aspects of seacoast fortification design and construction. In one form or another, and under a variety of names, such a body was to remain in existence until the beginnings of World War II.3
During the period of the Bernard Board, however, from 1817 to 1838, California was a territory of Spain and Mexico. These governments were struggling to maintain small coastal shore batteries at San Francisco, Monterey, and San Diego. The architecture and design of those structures came directly from the writings of the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Polloi, who in 25 B.C. wrote De Architecture Libri Decem which had been translated by the Spanish government in 1787 and was used by the Spanish engineers Don Miguel Costansó and Alberto de Cordova in their work in California.4 The Spanish fort at Ballast Point, EI Fuerte Real de San Joaquin de la Punta de los Guijarros, was essentially a first century B.C. Roman design modified for eighteenth century naval artillery assaults.
The Bernard Board emphasized up-to-date military strategy based upon war games and utilizing weather data, topographic maps, and navigational data.5 The primary variables were the deployment of infantry and naval forces. Harbor entrances were obstructed with elaborate nets, booms, and shore artillery batteries.
Bernard Board constructions did not begin until the 1820s after careful planning and congressional allotment of funding. The majority of earlier Dutch, French, Spanish, and English forts were preserved for use by local militia, as well as for historical importance.6 This policy may have led to the notation on the 1867 U.S. Coast Survey map by Ist Lieutenant Thomas Handbury of Ballast Point marked “Ruins of Spanish Barracks” and apparent avoidance of that mounded feature in the 1872 fort design.
Perhaps the most significant policy in American defense, it was the goal of the Bernard Board to simply discourage foreign invasion:
We should always keep in mind that of all forms of military preparation, coast defense alone was pacific in nature. While it gives the sense of security due to consciousness of strength, it is neither the purpose nor the effect of such permanent fortifications to involve us in foreign complications, but rather to guarantee us against them. They are not temptation to war, but security against it. Thus, they are thoroughly in accord with all the traditions of our national diplomacy.7
Implementation of this policy, therefore, was executed in designating fortifications which had been tested by West Point strategists to (1) oppose naval forces, (2) retain the fortified positions, (3) deny the enemy its goals, and (4) force the enemy to land in pre-selected areas which would be the most advantageous to friendly ground forces.
In 1838, Brigadier General James G. Totten succeeded General Bernard and a new era of seacoast defense began. An elaborate organization of boards and district engineers was established to carry out the goal. West Point graduates were assigned to posts as construction superintendents. These men supervised the land surveyors, construction crews, purchasing of materials, and subcontracting. All expenditures and design changes were channeled through division engineers and then sent on to the Chief of Engineers. Approval of expenditures and projects was then sent directly to the district engineer with a memo to the division.
The Totten Board continued beyond the life of General Totten, who died in 1864. Failures in the designs as a result of new ordnance improvements were noted quite carefully and new designs were rapidly turned out through the Civil War. Following independence of the California Republic from Mexico in 1846 and its entry into statehood in 1850, the Totten Board established the Office of the Division Engineer in San Francisco. The first construction in California was Fort Point on the south shore of San Francisco Bay in 1853, soon followed by a small battery on Alcatraz Island.
By 1850, the Totten Board had designed a complete defense plan for the continental United States. The harbor at San Diego was included within the network of thirty-one harbors, but no designs had been considered until the end of the Civil War.
Union bombardment of Fort Sumter between 1863 and 1865 provided proof-positive to the Totten Board that brick masonry architecture was made obsolete by the large-bore guns being developed by ordnance research in that period. Confederate soldiers repeatedly heaped earth and rubble in crested mounds to baffle the incoming Union projectiles. Civil War artillery was most effectively protected by thick concrete and earth-walled forts. Ordnance research led to development of Columbiad cannons, rifled Rodman guns, and Parrott rifles, which made masonry forts obsolete.
Following the aftermath of the American Civil War, the U.S. military strategists expanded the defense of the Pacific Coast to deny any foreign invader the refuge of an unwilling American port. Fortification, ordnance, weaponry, and naval deployment were the subjects of military war game exercises throughout Europe. The vulnerability of America’s Pacific shore was painfully evident to the Corps of Engineers’ West Point graduates who were only able to reinforce Fort Point at San Francisco with token defenses during the Civil War.
After the Civil War and the death of General Totten, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pursued the development of seacoast defenses with zeal. Division engineers were given directives to research and select sites for construction of new fortifications employing series of barbette-carriage Rodman guns spaced apart from each other and their magazines behind earthen ramparts reinforced with brick and concrete. Typical of these post-Civil War forts were casemated galleries at various elevations from which riflemen could defend the artillery batteries against infantry assaults.
This accelerated program of defense construction is marked by a departure from the castle forts of the pre-Civil War period to earth-camouflaged bunker-batteries supported by elaborate systems of underwater electrical mines, mortar batteries, channel obstructions, and large-bore rifled guns capable of shooting sixty-four-pound projectiles up to ten miles. Typical of this period were Rodman guns with fifteen- and twenty-inch calibers.
It was within this context that Brigadier General A.A. Humphrey’s, Chief of Engineers, Washington, D.C., convened a board in the Pacific Division in 1871 to design a defense of San Diego harbor. That board submitted a report to General Humphrey’s on May 26, 1871, referencing several prior recommendations to construct a shore battery at Ballast Point and suggesting pursuance of that project.8
The Pacific Board was presided over by Division Engineer Lieutenant Colonel B.S. Shepander. His replacement as Division Engineer in 1873, Lieutenant Colonel R. Seaforth Stewart, also served on the Pacific Board, as did Major G.H. Mendell and Lieutenant John Hall Weeden. The latter officer was secretary on the board and later became the superintendent at San Diego.
The Pacific Board proposed two shore batteries on Ballast Point, one where the neck joins the mainland of Point Loma and the other further out. This proposal to defend San Diego harbor was submitted to the Board of Engineers on Fortifications in New York City on October 1, 1871, for review and comment. Colonel Barnard, President of the New York Board, responded to General Humphreys on October 11:
We think that if either of these batteries is to be commenced, that on the main shore should be first built. But how hold this battery against assault by marines and sailors of a hostile squadron? The artillerists can not do it and it is not believed that sufficient aid can be obtained from the scant population of (he neighborhood to secure the position. It would seem that the works for the defense of San Diego harbor should be self-reliant.9
Colonel Barnard also recommended against the project because San Diego was “simply a harbor of refuge covering, at present, no local interests.”10 The Pacific Board debated this point rather extensively in a response dated December, 10 1872, to General Humphreys. Colonel Stewart argued that “our convictions of the importance of having San Diego harbor fortified, before the occurrence of war with a maritime nation, force us to an opposite opinion.”11 Colonel Stewart added that San Francisco was the only fortified harbor on the Pacific Coast. San Diego had the only other good harbor on the 1,400-mile coastline between San Diego and Admiralty Inlet in Washington State, and the topography was most suitable for fortification:
There can be no question about the wisdom of securing both of them for our own use, in time of war, thus forcing an enemy threatening this coast, if he needs refreshment and shelter of a harbor, to seek them in unsafe and open ground.12
On the challenge of the New York Board to make the Ballast Point battery self-reliant, the Pacific Board submitted a report with drawings proposing an immense fort sporting fifteen gun emplacements and a casemated masonry rampart capable of holding a garrison of 300 infantry troops. Classifying it as a polygonal casemated fortification, the Pacific Board informed General Humphreys:
We have modified the plan of the battery by raising a crest from the reference of 35′ to 42′ and lowering the parade to (20′) instead of (23′) as in our first project. This enables us to cover the masonry of flanking galleries, such as are clearly shown on the modification plan.
We have introduced an infantry parapet behind and above the artillery battery. The crest of this parapet is held in the reference of 51 feet. It could be armed, in time of war, with the howitzers of light guns. These guns, as well as the light arms will overlook Ballast Point and the water by which an enemy might approach it. They also fire into the sea coast battery, and, together with the fire from the flanking galleries, will render every part of the battery unpenetrable.
The length of this infantry parapet is 800 feet. A proper garrison, besides the regular artillerists for this battery, should be 300 men. With such a garrison armed with the most approved weapons for defense, we think that a successful assault on this battery would be impossible.
The galleries are twelve feet in width, and their interim arrangement partakes of the nature of a large guardhouse. The banquettes are the places where the guards will sleep. The walls are supposed to be concrete which will stand up well in the San Diego climate. They are covered against direct shots from an enemy’s vessels, and are sufficiently thick to withstand fragments from shells.13
The architectural rendering discussed by the Pacific Board was drafted by Lieutenant Weeden, who later served as the site superintendent.
The outline of this fort was a polygon with seven gun batteries facing the inside of the harbor offshore from La Playa. Eight other batteries were in a line facing the opening of the harbor and the Pacific Ocean offshore from Point Loma. All guns were capable of rotating down the spine of Ballast Point, thus immobilizing an invading armada.
On March 24, 1873, the Board of Engineers for Fortifications in New York wrote a letter to Brigadier General A.A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, tentatively supporting the Pacific Board’s design, but cautioning that the defense from the rear appeared weak. The New York Board deferred to the Pacific Board’s intimate knowledge of the limitations of the steep topography of Point Loma:
This Board thought it might be possible to find a position, somewhere in the vicinity of the site to be protected, for a small enclosed work capable of resisting a coup de main overlooking the battery within effective musketry range, and if possible, commanding the shores and hillside in connection with the battery itself in such a manner as to make an attempt to land along the shore either outside or inside of Ballast Point a difficult and dangerous undertaking. It is evident that if a fleet can land a sufficient force in the face of the natural difficulties of the population and carry the promontory of Point Loma against its scattered defenders of the battery, it must succumb to a rear attack as the proposed interior defenses have no power to resist such an attack. In default of sufficient knowledge of the topography of the vicinity of the battery, we must defer to the judgments of the Pacific Board on this point.14
Apparently the Pacific Board did not provide sufficient information on the landform conditions of the west side of Point Loma to the Chief of Engineers. To land any invasion force into the heavy surf and ragged shale and sandstone reefs, cliffs slick with moss and sea spray, and treacherous potholes thinly veiled with kelp and eel grass would have been a fool’s disaster. The nearest landing point would have been at Ocean Beach through heavy breakers some six or seven miles north and then around swampy marshland to the mud-mired and washboarded La Playa trail south of Ballast Point or over the marshlands of the San Diego River delta between Point Loma and Old Town. Any invasion force in that area would have been sitting ducks for U.S. Naval forces inside the harbor.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the fort designed for Ballast Point was the concrete and masonry infantry fortress inside the parade ground of the polygonal artillery fort.
From the planned sixty-three gun ports, riflemen could command anywhere inside the grounds. Casemated with a concrete roof to protect the soldiers from mortar attack, this structure was capable of repelling any frontal assault on the beaches which might overrun the artillery batteries. Earth revetments also ran down each side for a distance of 412 feet. The balance of the 237 infantrymen could further defend the fort. Behind and above the casemate was a battery for four mortars. Such a fort could easily repel marines and sailors from naval transports.
Nonetheless, the New York Board found fault with the design:
It is a very serious objection to the proposed musketry gallery of the revised plan that it exposes a masonry scarp sixteen feet high, at a short distance behind the gunners serving the battery pieces, to the shot and shell of an attacking fleet. The experimental firing at Fort Monroe against stone scarps leaves no doubt that fragments from such wall when struck by projectiles would be thrown back into the battery seriously impairing the service of the guns if not completely demoralizing the gunners. Should such interior defensive arrangement as that proposed ever be adopted it ought to be very much reduced in magnitude and be sunk as low as possible, only exposing the minimum of wall say five feet in height to shot from a hostile fleet.15
Based on some of the comments by the New York Board and apparently some input from the ordnance branch of the U.S. Army, the design was modified on March 19 and signed by General Humphreys on March 26, 1873. Instead of Rodman guns, some form of depressing guns was noted on the legend. A copy of the final design was sent to Colonel Stewart on April 2, and on April 16 General Humphreys was informed that support facilities would soon be built on Ballast Point.16
Actual activity began on June 6 when Colonel Stewart requested funding for a full-time overseer, a small boat, and a barge. Also needed was $50,000 to construct living quarters, a well house, storehouse, carpenter’s shop, blacksmith shop, and stable. This money would further purchase tack and animals, procure wagons, tools, and obtain all the necessary concrete and masonry.
Work must have gone very swiftly, as the June 30, 1873, “Annual Report of Progress Made in the Construction of (the) Fort at San Diego” indicated Lieutenant Weeden caught a steamer from San Francisco to San Diego on May 10 and arrived to begin work on the 19th:
The first constructed were located to the north and rear of Ballast Point, on sloping ground to the left of the site of the proposed work and just beyond it.
By June 30th, the buildings for men’s quarters, 64′ by 20′, with bunks for 48 men and a room for foremen; the mess house and kitchen, 96′ by 20′, including a dining room for laborers, one for mechanics, kitchen and quarters for boarding master, cooks, and all necessary store rooms, pantries, meat room; and a building for office, 34′ by 20′, containing quarters for the Assistant Clerk, had been completed. Those structures are all 10 feet high to the eaves with gable ends and shingled roofs; the sides of vertical boards with battened joints.
A stable for ten horses, 50′ by 24′, with feed room had just been begun. A temporary bridgework, 70′ by 10′, for landing has been constructed on the inner side of Ballast Point, which will answer for sometime in lieu of a wharf as the bank below is pretty bold.
It is expected to commence operations on the earthwork during July …18“
Lieutenant Weeden constructed this much of the project with $4,152 and requested an additional $65,000 for the 1874 budget. Colonel Stewart anticipated full cost for the completed fort to have been $125,000 by the end of the 1875 fiscal year.19
The earthwork did begin on July 1, 1873, and a crew of forty-eight men shoveled soil from the hillsides of Point Loma down onto the beach of Ballast Point:20
The site had been freed from roots and brush and earthwork on the defenses was begun in July 1873. Along the right face from its extremity to Traverse No. 1, the earth is at about ref. (31′), between No. 1 and No. 2 at (22′), and No. 2 to the salient and thence along the left face to No. 6, about midway of this face, is at the general level (20′) is that of the parade. The earth was taken from excavation carried back at this level about to the (gage?) line. The material, in general, was too tough for the pick and was loosened with blasting. The ramp along the left face has been put in shape. Total embankment went from equivalent excavation 27,626 cubic yards.
A concrete footing has been made to the exterior slope at the extreme right face to protect it from the action of the sea.
The concrete foundations of Traverse Magazine No. 1 have been laid and the walls carved up to the shoring of main arch. Concrete drains some 380 feet in length have been made to carry the surface water from the parade to the exterior. Total concrete measuring 313 cubic yards of sand and concrete. Water tanks have been put up and connected with the mess house and stable. All water for use has to be brought in boats from a distance.21
In the same time period as this construction, Congress began to seriously question the wisdom of constructing fortifications when ordnance research throughout Europe was rapidly making masonry forts obsolete. Engineers certainly felt that their war-gaming could second-guess weaknesses in the systems and that delay in construction would weaken the country. Given the stilted and very formal structure of correspondence among engineers in the Corps, a most surprising argument appeared in Colonel Stewart’s Annual Report of 1874:
In its present condition, the work is of course useless, what has been done is being, as it were, merely the foundation upon which to build. With another appropriation, some progress might be made toward a defense of the entrance to San Diego harbor, by the construction of magazines and the putting up some cover for guns and men and materials.
Every day’s delay will only add to the injury resulting from the action of the weather on the unfinished work and add to its final cost.
To complete the work so far as approved will probably cost, at least, $125,000. If the work is to be constructed, full one half of this amount should be appropriated as soon as possible.22
In spite of the Colonel’s appeal, the funding was not granted and Lieutenant Weeden was recalled to San Francisco for a new assignment. The overseer was retained at a reduced rate of $75 a month and given $1,200 for the care and preservation of the constructions of the unfinished fort. This keeper drove off the whalers and fishermen from squatting in the abandoned Army barracks and quarters.
When the Corps of Engineers returned on February 18, 1893, they expended $45,000 resurveying the grounds around Ballast Point and refurbishing the twenty-year-old buildings. They encountered an epoch of California history all but forgotten. Much as the ruins of the eighteenth century Fort Guijarros were obscured by the earth of the 1874 construction, the 1896 Endicott Period Battery Wilkeson was excavated into the ramparts of that earlier fort. Thus it was that the 1874 fort that never was on Ballast Point has been all but forgotten for its role in the defense of San Diego Harbor.
1. Emmanuel Raymond Lewis, Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History (Annapolis, Maryland: Leeward Publications, 1979), p. 89.
2. Jamie W. Moore, “Fortifications Board, 1816-1828, and the Definition of National Security,” The Citadel: Monograph Series: Number XVI (The Military College of Charleston, South Carolina, 1981).
3. Lewis, Seacoast Fortifications, p. 37.
4. Elisabeth L. Englehoff, ed., Fabricas, California Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mines (April 1952), p. 10.
5. Willard B. Robinson, American Forts, Form and Foundation (Urbana, Illinoisi University of Illinois Press, 1977).
6. Joseph G. Totten, Report of the Chief Engineer on the Subject of National Defenses (Washington D.C.: A Boyd Hamilton, 1851), pp. 51-55, 75-76, 88-89.
7. James D. Richardson, ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. 9 pp. 728-729.
8. The earliest documents on this subject have not been found, but a letter dated October 1, 1872, referenced a “Report of the Pacific Board, May 31, 1867,” and a “Report of the Chief of Engineers, General Totten, Defense of the Pacific Coast.” A letter report dated June 27, 1868, (A1189) and another dated December 2, 1869 (A3107.5), were referenced in a letter dated October 4, 1872.
9. National Archives, U.S. Government, Letter from Colonel John Barnard, President of the New York Board of Engineers on Fortifications, to Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, October 11, 1872, Record Group 77.
11. National Archives, U.S. Government, Letter from Lieutenant Colonel R.S. Stewart, Engineer of the Pacific Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco, California, to Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, December 10, 1872, Record Group 77.
14. National Archives, U.S. Government, Letter from Colonel John Barnard, President of the New York Board of Engineers on Fortifications to Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps Engineers, March 24, 1873, Record Group 77.
16. National Archives, U.S. Government, Letter from Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to Lieutenant Colonel R.S. Stewart, Engineer of the Pacific Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco, California, April 16, 1873, Record Group 77.
17. National Archives, U.S. Government, Letters from Lieutenant Colonel R.S. Stewart, Engineer of the Pacific Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco, California, to Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, June 6, 1873, Record Group 77.
18. National Archives, U.S. Government, “Annual Report of Progress Made in the Construction of the Fort at San Diego,” Lieutenant Colonel R.S. Stewart, Engineer of the Pacific Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco, California, to Brigadier General A. A. Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, June 30, 1873, Record Group 77.
20. The 1983 archaeological excavations by the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation revealed that the 1873 excavations did, in fact, cover over the parade ground of the 1796 Spanish Fort Guijarros. A large trash pit was encountered at a depth of ten feet from modern surface and thirty-five feet from the top of the earth embankment, which had been begun in 1873 and completed in 1896. The 1873 construction was utilized in the construction of Battery Wilkeson, a four-gun emplacement for ten-inch disappearing rifles.
21. National Archives, “Annual Report,” June 30, 1873.